“Death is not the end. It is only the beginning. You fear the darkness that lays beyond. I have swam within it, drunk on its infinite cold. I have charted the paths of the dead. You fear me for what I know; I despise you for what you don’t.”
– Necromancer Hectal Lahmia, ‘Cryptwaker’.
Tobias had met Coldbloods before, but only rarely; they did not often travel beyond the borders of Naharnas. The Dynasty saw little of them as emissaries; few princes would allow them to remain for long and sate their vile hungers. Pyres, who did not have to kill to feed, were the undead’s ambassadors. Still, the half-alive things always made his blood chill. Those heartless blue eyes, their pallid skins and aloof demeanors. Despite their lifeless status, they did not smell of decay for they did not rot. This one, despite the freak blizzard, would after having spent days in the company of zombies under the merciless Alvenian sun.
As he reached the main gates, the soldiers there unbarred the smaller guardhouse door – they would not invite a surprise charge by opening the portcullis itself – and Hel mounted his horse. Regal whinnied nervously at the scent of a drake so close, but the war horse was an obedient creature and allowed Hel to ride him out to meet the vile creature and the envoy which rode upon it.
She was already watching him as Regal trotted out to meet her, that damnable soulsight alerting her to his coming. As he drew closer, he could see her features through the open ‘T’ of her helmet; high, fine cheekbones that noblewomen throughout the Dynasty would have killed for, full – if pale – lips. She was a a rare beauty. Hel wondered who she had been in life and what fortunes had seen her soul bound into ever-living death. It was her eyes that spoiled her image; he could not say what colour they had been in life, but now they were the same shade of cold, calculating cobalt that all her people bore.
The inquisitor-captain refused to show weakness before the Coldblood and he met her gaze evenly. “I am Inquistor-Captain Tobias Hel of the 12th Alvenian Infantry Regiment. You are intruding on Dynasty lands, in violation of the Walpurgis Treaty of 12-756.”
“I am Coryphée of the Seventh Host and am bidden by my master to demand your surrender.”
Hel’s heart sunk. Her master – they had a necromancer. Coldbloods could be reasoned with – one of those foul madmen could not. And a powerful one, judging by the army he had raised, if this was but one of his Hosts. “What is your name?” he asked. “I do not treat with those who withhold such a detail.”
“I have told you.”
“You told me what your master named you,” Hel snapped. The Coldblood blinked in surprise, whether because of the vehemence in his tone, or because he knew or guessed that her title might not have been of her choosing. Reminding an enslaved Coldblood of their powerlessness was not the wisest action, but if he didn’t win this battle, he still wanted this creature smouldering at the being who had orchestrated his murder. A small victory, but it would be something “I asked you what your name was.”
For a moment, she seemed on the verge of answering until she stiffened in her saddle, eyes clouding for an instant. So the dark lord keeps a tight rein on his minions, does he?
“My name is Coryphée,” she hissed. “Nothing else has any meaning for me. Your men will lay down their arms and the Harvestman, in his generosity will turn every fifth soldier into a golem and every fiftieth into a pyre. You will receive the honour of being Reborn as part of the nobility of his Host.”
Golems… also known as the Ensnared. The necromancer – this ‘Harvestman’ called it a boon for those who surrendered, but Hel was no fool. Supposedly undead without the appetites of either the drinkers or the Coldbloods, they were the cruelest, foulest joke in the universe – nothing more than zombies with the memories of their past lives. In their pain, they often sought out their friends and families and then devoured them as the hunger took hold. He would condemn no one to such a fate, nor would he allow his men to be slaughtered out of this contemptible thing’s ‘mercy’.
So. War it was to be, then. Hel turned Regal from the undead minion before him, heading back to the safety of Temple Consect. “What is your answer, Inquisitor-Captain?” Coryphée called after him.
Without looking back, Hel replied. “Your master’s offer is most generous. I will need to discuss these terms with my men. Expect my reply shortly.”
The armoured warrior bowed her head in understanding, urging her own mount back to her lines. She did not hurry.
“What did she say, Captain?”
“We fight.” Hel strode past his underlings to one of the heavy ballistas, its arrowhead hollow and filled with black powder. The explosive was still new to the Dynasty, dangerous to use, but easier to acquire than enchanted pyrotechnics. Many were still experimenting with it, looking for other uses than blasting or the massive cannon that Naharnian armies were starting to favour.
“Launch that into their tents. Let’s give the ‘Harvestman’ a taste of Dynasty fire and steel!”
The missile arced out from Temple Consect’s upper ramparts, over the rows of earthworks, landing in the barracks. Seconds after impact, the simple fuse burned down into the bolt’s explosive core and the blast tore through the Seventh Host’s quarters, hurling shrapnel and body parts into the air. The Harvestman ducked at the sound. “What was that?” he snapped.
Betrayer looked over the necromancer’s shoulder, at the column of smoke wafting up into the air. He could feel urgency and faint echoes of pain as the wounded climbed out of the smouldering crater and other rushed to douse the spreading flames. All Lifeless had a connection to the wraiths’ realm, but it was Coldbloods who had the strongest of it, able to sense one another’s presence to impose their wills upon the mindless husks of the lesser undead and sometimes, feel the emotions and hear the thoughts of their kin. Nekerya gave Her children much.
He glanced down at the Harvestman. “I suspect that was the answer to Your Lordship’s offer.”
Canticle frowned. “The ballistas of Consect appear to have greater range then we anticipated. They must have upgraded them.” She was trying to project the same sense of calm as Betrayer, but she couldn’t effect the same cold aura. Magic and siegecraft were her specialities. The Harvestman had brought their army closer to the temple than she had suggested, but he had wanted a spectacle, to have his host laid out before the Dynasty’s soldiers and make sure they knew what they faced.
“Well, return fire!” the necromancer growled. “Do something!”
The woman half-bowed. “As my lord wills.”
Betrayer looked at his master. “With your leave, I must prepare my soldiers. Your guard will escort you to the Summoning Pit for your efforts in this battle, my lord.”
“Yes, go. Get out!”
Bekah covered Anyka’s ears as the first cannons volleyed back at Temple Consect, iron shot smashing against the thick stone walls. The young girl had never heard anything like it before and the crash of blackpowder igniting was a terrifying cacophony. Anyka screamed, clutching Bekah tightly as she remembered another night or horrifying, unfamiliar sounds and the atrocities that followed.
Make it stop! The child’s frightened mind pounded out that one thought over and over. Make it stop make it stop make it stop…
Catapults readied, some bearing rocks while others were loaded with the dead. In a long siege, their rotting, bloated bodies would spread disease within the temple’s walls, but they could serve a second purpose. Any fleshwalkers that weren’t destroyed by the impact, would begin hunting the defenders from the inside the fortress’s walls, dragging their broken bodies towards the scent of flesh.
Arrows flashed up and over Consect’s battlements, showering the earthworks with fire. Zombies, feeling neither pain nor possessing the cleverness necessary to pull the flaming arrows from their bodies began to burn as well, living torches that ignited other undead warriors, be they skeletons or more fleshwalkers.
The slightly less stupid ghouls and their vampyre masters hunted these burning fleshwalkers, putting them down and doing their best to smother the flames.
“Archers!” shouted Canticle, her spell-amplified voice rippling through the air, her orders enforced by her will, giving her soldiers coordination that no living army possessed. “Ready!” A thousand pyres and twice that many skeletons nocked their bows under cover of the earthworks. They were stronger than flesh, their bows heavier and they could strike from ranges only matched by siege weapons.
The sorceress made a cutting motion. “Loose!”
They released as one, and the the high-pitched cry of three thousand pile-headed shafts filled the dimming sky, the lethal rain arcing up above Temple Consect’s walls, then falling to shower upon the defenders, screams and cries of pain replacing the monotonous song.
“Get those palisades up!” roared Hel as he stormed along the barricades. “Trebuchet crews – we know where their archers are! Fire now, Vasel damn you!” He shoved a man with a bleeding hand back to the ramparts. “Ballistas – target their cannon and do it now!”
Something crashed against the fortress’s walls, blasting a chunk out of one of the gun turrets, the broken remains of a ballista and the men who’d crewed it showering the nearby soldiers.
“Archers!” cried an Alvenian sergeant to his men. “Loose!”
The undead’s volley was answered in kind, but the men of Temple Consect could only reach the nearest rings of the defenders’ earthworks, where hundreds of grey-fleshed ghouls mustered and began loping towards Consect’s walls.The effect was devastating. The hail of clothyard shafts drove down into a teeming morass of ghouls, the creatures screaming in agony as arrowheads designed to pierce all but the toughest armour sheared through their sickly flesh. They should have broken – unlike men, ghouls were cowardly and weak-willed, only dangerous in great numbers – but the will of their Coldblood lords and the Harvestman himself drove them onwards, despite their increasing dead. They ran faster, climbing over their fallen in their rush to reach Consect’s walls, leaving the dead an injured behind them, ignoring the arrows that continued to fall among them. In moments, they’d reached the temple and began climbing up its sheer face like loathsome insects.
“Have some of Ambre’s warmth, you blights!” shouted one soldier as the pots were tipped. Hel had kept some boiling oil ready for just this occasion and the ghouls shrieked horribly as they were scalded to death, sliding down the now slippery walls and writhing about in pools of steaming liquid as their flesh was burned away. More kept coming, though. They would not stop until the last of them was dead, or the lords driving them to their doom were.
A catapult hurled a boulder through a column of skeletons as they approached the main gate, archers with black powder arrows loosing into the company, blasting bony warriors apart, but they kept coming, marching to the will of their master.
The chaos was no less complete on the undead’s side; the ballista and cannon crews had each other’s range and pounded one another mercilessly. Canticle had had to resurrect several pyre crews already, but many were beyond even her abilities, blasted into chunks of meat, or burned beyond saving. She and her acolytes did what they could, but resurrections were the most draining of spells. Coldblood felt little pain, but exhausation was all too real.
but the Harvestman fed on the death and chaos of the battle, pouring his own power into his minions. “There!” the Coldblood cried as her soul-sight spotted a weakness in the Temple’s southern wall. “All guns fire there! Catapults, too. We must have a breach!”
The Temple shook down to its very foundations as the enemy shifted their guns. Hel knew what they were about – they were trying to force a breach and pour through. His men were no match for Coldbloods. No one was and he had to keep them out, by whatever means necessary. “Keep at their guns!” he urged; several were already smoking wrecks and two more had fallen silent with the deaths of their crews. “All pikemen to the south gate! Ready yourselves!”
He drew his cutlass, heading down to lead his men, clapping his second on the shoulder, knowing that he would never see the man again.
Ursid grinned toothily around his ill-kempt beard. “Ready, Betrayer?”
“I am,” the younger man responded coolly, stroking Keldare’s neck, the drake hissing pleasantly at his master’s touch, the sound rising to a growl, the animal aware that soon it would have a chance to feed.
Canticle knelt on the broken and bloodied ground, her eyes flickering as dark, incomprehensible words spilled from her lips. In life, she had been Katrina Jellico, a healer. The old woman who had taught her of herbs and medicines had also instructed her in the ways of healing magics. When she had died, a curious Katrina had discovered an ancient leather tome locked away in the old woman’s home. She had put to good use the spells she had discovered inside the strange book, bringing about a bountiful harvest and increasing her ability to heal, never suspecting that the magic was based in the dark arts. The new priest that had come to her village had informed her of this at her trial, after which she had been burned at the stake as an example to others.
The Harvestman had come, drawn by her death, her soul-screams echoing throughout the wraiths’ realm. He’d granted her new life and power beyond that which she had only dreamed of before. Raising herself up from the ground, Canticle drew an oozing, flickering mound of shadow from the soil, rising about her like a swarm of lascivious serpents. It seeped through her armour, filling her with the final thoughts of all those who had been murdered in this land. All their hate, all their anger, all their pain was hers to command and she hurled it forth, black lightning spilling from her fingertips, lashing the soldiers atop the parapets of Temple Consect. Men screamed and writhed like broken puppets as that power coursed through them, burning them from the inside out, until nothing was left but blackened skeletons.
Coryphée whispered sweet, blasphemous words to the arrow in her hand as she notched it into her bow, setting it loose. The damned, screaming spirit bound within it sought out a worthwhile victim, driving unerringly through his chestplate and rupturing his heart.
With a boneless clatter of armour, Inquisitor-Captain Hel’s second fell lifelessly to the blood-slick ramparts of Temple Consect.
The walls blew inwards with their final sundering and Hel raised his cutlass. “Pikes forward! Keep those dogs out and the first man to take a step back will taste my blade himself!”
Two thousand soldiers lumbered forward, heavy barbed pikes lowering as their awaited the inevitable charge. They did not wait long.
Moaning with grotesque hunger, the first wave of cavalry advanced: fleshwalkers saddled atop their dead mounts, crude weapons clutched in rotting hands. These were the Ensnared – even with a necromancer’s will driving it, no normal mindless zombie could ever ride a horse. They surged towards the breach, followed on their heels by Ursid, Betrayer and the ten thousand soldiers behind them.
Hel beheaded one zombie with an artful swing of his cutlass, crushing the still-snapping head under his boot as he stepped forward and cleaved another’s skull in half with an upward strike. Brain ruined, the dead thing dropped to the pile at his feet. His men-at-arms had joined the fray, giving his pikes time to retreat and charge again, pushing the undead out of Temple Consect, his archers peppering their assault columns with arrows.
Behind him, he heard a massive, terrifying roar and a huge figure loomed over the breach, a bear-skin cloak hanging off its shoulders, a great broad-ended axe clutched in his dripping hands. Backlit by the last embers of the fading sun, the creature posed there for a moment, laughing as an arrow punctured the shoulder joint on its armour, blue eyes shining.
The captain felt acid bubble up into his throat as he recognized the warrior for what it was. Coldblood!
Inquisitor-Captain Tobias Hel raised his sword, pointing it at the figure and roared in response, surging ahead with his men towards death’s open arms.